Friesen Drillers: Reeling in the years
By Colleen Cross
When Ground Water Canada talked with Friesen Drillers in 2003, it became clear the Manitoba company was rooted in innovation and a strong work ethic, and growing – even after 100-plus years.
Fifteen years later, those strong roots are still there, but there have been significant changes: both of the sad, life-changing kind, and also of the inspirational kind.
Back then Friesen Drillers had 22 staff, 10 rigs, and about 40 pieces of equipment, including generators, test pumps, water servicing units, auxiliary air machinery and hammers. They drilled 450 wells per year. It was owned and operated by brothers John Jr. and James Friesen, and brother-in-law Ryan Rempel.
These days, Friesens has about 65 staff, 39 rigs in total, 13 water trucks, 53 transports/trailers and over 100 pieces of auxiliary equipment. The number of wells drilled hasn’t changed significantly, partly due to a general slowdown in demand for new domestic wells. However, the workload is as heavy as ever, with much work happening on commercial, municipal wells, and on the servicing side. The new owners are John’s children Kim, Jason and Michael, and James’ son Peter (their cousin).
I catch up with brother and sister Jason and Kim Friesen at the company’s relatively new 132,000-square-foot headquarters in Steinbach, Man., 40 minutes southeast of Winnipeg.
The good-natured siblings begin by reliving last July’s 125th anniversary open house. “It went very well,” Kim says. “It all started out as a dream to build a museum, and we wanted to make sure we had this museum finished off for our 125th anniversary. We started off with a 1890s wooden cable tool drill rig that we restored in house and that we have on display here. We’ve also got a 1936 Chevy pick-up truck that our great-grandfather used to use as a work, or service, vehicle.”
The museum showcases some of the tools and equipment they used over the years from some of the bigger projects they’ve done. They have drill bits used when Friesens cable-tool drilled some of the first municipal wells in Steinbach.
It’s all displayed on a timeline wall that chronicles company growth from 1892 to the present day, she says. “It gives a history with pictures and information about what we’ve done and who we are.”
Jason says the company’s large office and shop facility just outside of Steinbach, where they moved in May 2007, used to be an implements dealer. “For 10 years we had this open showroom with nothing in it. . . . We decided, we’ll build a space with some old junk we have lying around,” he says with a laugh.
“It gives people in Steinbach a chance to come down and take a look at part of their history as well,” Kim says, adding that the company’s history parallels that of Steinbach and its earliest settlers.
They estimate 600 to 800 people came out to the party. “The community sure showed its support for us,” she says.
The yard area was set up to display their rigs “to give people a chance to look at some of the larger equipment close up because it’s not something most people are familiar with, so they get a better understanding of it,” she adds.
In addition to residential and commercial water wells, Friesens now do specialized pipe piles, ground loop heating and cooling systems, river bank stabilization and other projects, well rehabilitation, aqua flushing, down-hole video inspections and hydrogeological engineering, and myriad other jobs.
Kim and Jason give me a rundown of the company’s ownership, and it’s clear they are well versed in family history. Great-grandfather C.K. Friesen, a blacksmith by trade, started making wells at age 15 using a pick and shovel.
Intrigued by the water well drilling process, C.K. Friesen (1877-1953) started drilling wells in the Steinbach area and southeastern Manitoba in 1892.
In 1926 he took out an American and Canadian patent on an artesian well drilling tool, which Jason and Kim describe as a kind of squeezable packer that is turned from the top to expand the rubber and make the most of water pressure in pipes. It is still used today in the oil industry, they say, and the patent and blueprint are on display in the museum.
“He was a very smart man, and curious, and I think it [drilling] really intrigued him,” Kim says.
In 1946 his son John Sr. took over the business. As the first president of the Manitoba Water Well Association, John Sr. became a key figure in the industry. “He was the one to bring that to life,” Kim says. She adds that their grandfather, who passed away in 1994, was also the one to switch from buying cable tools to mud rotary.
Kim, Jason, Michael and Peter are the current owners since July 2014, when John Jr. died suddenly at age 63 as the result of a motorcycle accident. While mourning his premature passing, John’s successors quickly learned about leadership as they assumed ownership of the company.
For Kim, the biggest change was learning to work as part of a management team. For Jason, it was realizing that the buck stopped with him and the team. “When I had a question, I didn’t have my dad to turn to. I had to find the answer myself,” he says.
“We all get along for the most part,” Jason says. “We’ve always had pretty good family dynamics.”
They reflect on their father’s many contributions to the company and the industry. “Our father brought us to the next level, I think,” Kim says. “He had a lot of ambition and he really wanted to see something bigger happen with this company. He saw the potential to go a lot further and diversify. He basically grew the company out.”
“He expanded our abilities by purchasing a CR rig in 1998,” Jason adds. “That put us on step ahead of our competition in terms of drilling capability.”
Friesen Drillers has continued its expansion over the years, purchasing outside companies that operate independently but under the Friesen umbrella.
Beneath that wide umbrella is Andrews & Sons Well Drilling in Regina, Sask., which brother Michael took over when it was acquired; Paddock Drilling in Brandon, Man.; Mel’s Well Drilling in Emo, Ont., and Downrite Drilling of Chilliwack, B.C. In March, Downrite, which specializes in geotechnical and environmental drilling, became the latest to join the Friesen Drillers family. The company continues to be run by Bill Tuytel, who established it in 1988.
“We wanted to explore, geographically,” Jason says of the recent purchase. “We did a little bit of research and they seemed fairly busy in the B.C. area, so we thought it was a good fit.”
“The businesses are all independent, so to speak. Still run the same way they were because they were successful,” Jason says. “We may expand upon them.”
All told, the company has about 65 staff. Friesens and Paddock each have about 20 employees, Andrews and Sons about 10, Mel’s has three and Downrite Drilling another dozen.
As office manager, Kim specializes in the financial and administrative side of the business, handling finances, administration, human resources and safety for Friesens and overseeing these functions for Andrews & Sons, Mel’s, Paddock and Downrite. Jason is operations manager for Friesens and oversees operations for the other businesses. Michael heads up Andrews & Sons. Field technician Peter spearheads training across the company.
“We do a little of everything, but in the end, we’re all responsible for everything,” Kim says.
Indeed, they have most aspects of the well drilling business covered, including their own hydrogeology department, run by hydrogeological engineer Jeff Bell, who is also president of the Manitoba Water Well Association. Bell specializes in engineering projects, municipal, farms, and other projects out of Manitoba.
“We do work alongside Paddock, Mel’s, Andrews and Downrite,” Jason says. “We’re in constant communication with all of the companies on a regular basis. So, if Michael sees something that would be better suited for us, then, absolutely, we’ll look at it, and vice versa, for everybody.”
“We can handle some jobs from start to finish, including licensing,” he says.
A high proportion of their budget goes to staff and equipment maintenance. They replace service trucks every one or two years and stagger the upgrading of other vehicles and equipment.
They have done work in different areas of Canada. One job, doing 12-inch dewatering well projects in Labrador, was memorable. “Everything came back red, our guys came back red,” Kim says of the iron ore. They remember reports that the ground was very red – stained by iron ore. It was difficult to get supplies up there. “There were definitely some challenges,” he says. They transported some by ferry and some by barge – a barge they built for the purpose, preferring to build or buy outright as opposed to renting. “There’s nothing we won’t do,” he says with a laugh.
If there’s an opportunity to expand, they are prepared to take it, Jason says. “We would like to be across Canada. We’d like to continue with their family tradition. That’s our goal.”
A FEW GOOD PEOPLE
Friesens staff come from various backgrounds, but the company tends to attract young people who want to get into a trade straight out of high school – locals who want a job, Jason says.
They have participated in career days at the local high school, once taking their VersaDrill V100 to the school grounds. Usually two staff attend these outreach sessions. They also advertise in the newspaper.
The ideal employee is someone who is self-motivated and has a good attitude – but that can be hard to gauge from an interview, Jason says. They’ve been known to let a prospective employee come and watch the drillers at work to get a feel for the job.
Some drillers are specialists and others become all-around operators – some faster than others, he says. “Certain guys can run any rigs; others only run certain rigs.”
“Hiring is one of the biggest challenges we have in our industry,” Jason says, adding that they like to train new people on the job over an extended period. “Depending on the person, it could take two to four years before you have a capable equipment operator.” Why is it hard to find the right people for the job? “It’s not the most glamorous job,” Jason says.
A dedicated staffer who is certified by the Certificate of Recognition program, or COR, carries out on-site safety training for the entire company.
They have three dedicated maintenance people at Friesens and two at Paddocks.
Friesens’ marketing efforts include print and radio ads, and posts on social media channels Facebook and Instagram. But they find the best way to spread the word is indirectly through community involvement. To stay in touch with Steinbach and surrounding area, they attend events and support local charities.
They did more outreach than usual in 2017 because of their anniversary, including the company party, golf tournaments, and a popular event staged by the local radio station. Every Wednesday in July and August, the station hosts a barbecue on the closed-off main street. Businesses contribute food, supplies and services. Friesens has a booth and contributes more than 72,000 bottles of water, which for the anniversary carried the Friesens logo. Proceeds go to a different charity every week. This commitment to charity runs across the Friesens family of companies, Jason says, giving as an example, Mel’s Well Drilling’s support of local hockey and car racing in their cottage-country town.
Following in many family footsteps, including those of father John, and uncles James and Ryan Rempel, Jason is heavily involved in its provincial association. Jason has been a Manitoba Water Well Association board member for four years and now also serves as a representative for the newly formed Canadian National Ground Water Association.
“Jason Friesen is a “chip off the old block,’ says Inez Miller, executive director of the Manitoba Water Well Association, which holds four regional meetings a year. “His late father, John Friesen, was a man of integrity and courage. He passed these values on to his children. These values are reflected not only in the drilling business sector, but in everyday community life.”
No doubt, those values will live on in the fifth generation of Friesen Drillers. The future bodes well for this family business, with the younger family members now in the mix. Kim’s son Mason, Jason’s daughter Ashley and Mike’s son Colton all work in the company. Ashley is a service technician who services pumps and does well development. Mason is starting to drill. Mike’s son Colton just started at Andrews in an assistant role.
Like C.K., they are all hard workers, Jason says. Their goal is “to see what our great-grandfather, grandfather, and our father and uncles, have done for this company and the work they put into it. We tried to follow that same philosophy of working hard to get where you want to be.”